Maybe it’s still a little early, but it seems like the right time to get the “University of Houston Cougars can win it all” train rolling.
And why not?
After watching the No.1 seeded Cougars make a way out of no way during the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament, how could you not see it as being realistic that they will have the rare opportunity to win their first national championship right here in their own hometown when the Men’s Final Four rolls into NRG Stadium in a week?
First, the Cougars will have to get past 5th seeded Miami during the Sweet 16 in Kansas City. Then, there is a likely collision course that will pit UH and Texas against each other in the Elite Eight round for the right to come to Houston. The Coogs are definitely on track.
After the miraculous way the Cougars survived the opening weekend, dealing with their star guard Marcus Sasser going from unavailable to limited with a groin injury and his backcourt mate Jamal Shead dealing a hyper-extended knee and then having to defeat a talented No.9 seeded Auburn team in its own backyard in Birmingham during the second round of the Midwest Regional, it seems like this could be their year.
UH coach Kelvin Sampson believes the way his team has handled tough environments this season will help them weather these big NCAA Tournament moments. The Cougars certainly didn’t seem phased as they overcame a 10-point halftime deficit to stifle Auburn in the second half on the way to victory.
“For us it’s – every game is a challenge,” said Sampson, whose team won the American Athletic Conference regular season and is 33-3 on the season. “I think everywhere we play in the league this year was a packed house. Hopefully that helps us.”
It also helps that the Cougars are getting big performances right now from some unexpected places. Freshman Jarace Walker, Sasser and Shead usually find a way to come up big, but what has been a pleasant surprise during the Tournament is the emergence of the role players.
During the first-round win over Northern Kentucky, with Sasser only able to give 14 minutes and five points in the first half, junior forward J’Wan Roberts and freshman Emanuel Sharp came up with big efforts.
Roberts contributed a double-double with 11 points and 12 rebounds while Sharp came off the bench to hit two big 3s to keep Northern Kentucky in check.
Then in the second round, while Sasser and Shead both played better but were still limited, third guard Tramon Mark played outside of himself, scoring a career-high 26 points to help the Cougars overcome Auburn.
While acknowledging the team needed a big effort from Mark, Sasser says he knew it was in him.
“My reaction, you know, I see that all the time,” Sasser said. “I have been seeing that since the summer. So, I wasn’t really surprised at it. You know, he knew what time it was.”
The emergence of players like Mark, Roberts and Sharp could be huge as the games get tougher starting with the matchup against the Hurricanes. The good thing is the days between games should give Sasser and Shead a chance to be closer to 100% healthy.
Sampson certainly believes in his team and their chances going forward.
“We define our culture the way we define it,” said Sampson, whose team has made the Sweet 16 round in four of the last five years. “You know, people can jeer it or make fun of it all you want. We don’t care. We are who we are. These are the moments that define programs. You have to step up in these moments.”